America's 40-year war on drugs has succeeded admirably in:
• Putting more than 400,000 nonviolent offenders behind bars. Most of these prisoners are otherwise law-abiding citizens whose only offense is possessing or selling substances that other people want. Under minimum sentencing laws, they are often locked up for longer than those sentenced for manslaughter or rape. Clarence Aaron is a shocking example. A promising student and football player in his early 20s, he was convicted of "conspiracy" to sell drugs. His role? Introducing a dealer to a buyer. He is serving three consecutive life sentences in an Alabama prison. With no possibility of parole he will live his life and die behind bars.
• Increasing violence in our streets. When drugs are illegal, profits are high, and turf battles result. Those who deal in illegal substances have no recourse to the courts for settling disputes, so they settle them with guns.
• Tearing families apart and turning peaceful men and women into marginal citizens. Tens of thousands of husbands, fathers, wives, and mothers languish behind bars, their children raised by others. This tears the very fabric of our society. Consider Stephanie Nodd, mother of four. Sentenced to 30 years for a nonviolent drug offense, she has so far missed two decades of her children's birthdays, graduations, and other precious moments. Her children's primary caregiver, her mother, died six years ago. The five-day furlough granted for the funeral was also the first time Stephanie had seen her youngest daughter since infancy, outside of prison. A half million American children have at least one parent behind bars.
• Harassing and forcing the closure of medical marijuana dispensaries that are abiding by state laws, thus destroying the jobs and tax revenues provided by those legal and humanitarian businesses.
• Perpetuating Jim Crow-- the systematic subjugation of blacks. The incarceration rate for blacks on drug charges is wildly disproportionate to their numbers. An entire generation of young black males has grown up distrusting and despising the police who, instead of keeping the peace, stop, search, and often process literally millions of young blacks through the legal system for trivial offenses like "open display" (often induced by the police) of marijuana. For these young men (and women too), the police have become a source of humiliation and pain rather than upholders of the law.
• Causing thousands of overdose deaths. People who might call for help when their friends overdose don't call because they fear being arrested themselves.
• Spreading disrespect for the law. The last three US Presidents have consumed marijuana. Seventeen states and DC have made marijuana legal for medical use and the evidence of its value for relief of pain, nausea and other ills is overwhelming. Yet the federal government insists that this relatively benign substance must remain illegal under federal law; federal prosecutors have recently increased their raids on state-approved marijuana dispensaries, and federally sponsored ads -- "This is your brain on drugs" -- convinced the younger generation that government is clueless.
• Trampling on civil liberties. Police forces anxious to up their records of drug arrests use illegal frisks, wiretaps, heat detectors, GPS detectors (often illegal under the Fourth Amendment), aerial surveillance (soon: drones), and pot-sniffing dogs on hundreds of innocent people.
• Stealing private property. Tens of millions of dollars of property have been seized by state and federal police as "involved with" drug activity. These homes, boats, cars, and cash are often the property of people not even suspected of any illegal action. But if their property can be connected to any suspected drug related activity, it can be taken and sold with its cash value added to police department coffers.
• Corrupting our police. Thousands of police officers have been fired or prosecuted for planting drugs on suspects, for diverting seized drugs for their own profit, for coercing lies from innocent parties with threats and plea deals to convict persons they want to "get."
• Fueling horrendous violence in Mexico and other Latin American countries where profits from illegal drugs and the resulting turf wars have resulted in massacres, beheadings, and mutilations of tens of thousands of innocents. These atrocities do not occur because people use drugs; they occur because drugs are illegal.
• Harassing, maiming and killing innocent U.S. citizens. So-called SWAT teams of police, with equipment from the U.S. army, kick down doors and open fire on homes, often the wrong homes due to incorrect information. A SWAT team invaded Cheye Calvo's Maryland home in 2008, for example, hand-cuffing Calvo and his mother-in-law, shooting and killing the Calvo's two pet Labrador retrievers, and terrorizing the family. Calvo, it turned out, was the mayor of the town and entirely innocent of drug charges. Many cases are worse than this. Dozens of innocent people have been killed in these SWAT raids.
America has locked up more than two million of its people, a higher percent of the population than comparable figures for any other country. Nearly a quarter of these prisoners are in for non-violent drug crimes. Why?
To send a message, some will say, or because drugs are dangerous. Yes, drugs can be dangerous. But drug prohibition is much worse, as this remarkable record of accomplishment shows.
Philip D. Harvey heads the DKT Liberty Project. He is the author of Government Creep: What the Government is Doing That You Don't Know About.
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